Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.
But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.
Best new writing:
Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.
In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more.
In some years this category has been thin of the ground – this year, it’s been one of the most hotly-contested categories, with numerous excellent adaptations that I’d have been happy to name as the winner. But there’s only room for two, and in a very tight run for second place, Bryony Lavery is up against Bryony Lavery. Normally The Lovely Bones would have been a shoo-in, but edging ahead is Pilot Theatre’s Brighton Rock. Both adaptations were faithful to their respective books, but still brought an original touch to the story with their staging. With a dead heat in all other categories, I gave it to the latter for the more iconic set and the original music, but it could just as easily have been the other.
But the winner is an adaptation that does something extra. It’s an achievement to capture everything that matters to the book in a faithful adaptation, but an even bigger achievement to do all that and also bring in something new – and make it look like that is how the story was written all along. That is precisely what Nick Lane did for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Normally I would baulk at the idea of adding a love interest into a story that previously didn’t have one, but Eleanor Lanyon is this version was a pivotal character. And not just the usual trope of the attractive heroine whose warnings the main character ignores – if anything, it’s the other way round, with Eleanor’s belief in Dr. Jekyll pushing him towards destruction. Blackeyed Theatre are already a previous winner in this category with Frankenstein, but that was with a different writer of the adaptation. To have done this again with a new writer makes Blackeyed Theatre a formidable force to catch on every tour.
Best revival / classic / long-running play:
I’ve not seen many existing plays this year, so there’s not many to choose from. Nevertheless, the few I have available I’m happy to put forward. For second place, it’s a close call between two Stephen Joseph Theatre productions, with both The 39 Steps and Joking Apart great plays directed flawlessly. After changing my mind several times, however, I’m going for Joking Apart, which is one of Alan Ayckbourn’s cleverest plays, a rare story of a happy contented couple thinly masking the bleak prospects for everyone else. And, of course, it scores highly for directing as it’s directed by Alan Ayckbourn. There are plenty of other directors who can do justice to Ayckbourn too, but Alan Ayckbourn himself guarantees it’s directed by someone who gets the play.
But the winner of this category, for the first time, is an amateur production. It is extremely rare for amateur productions to make it into the end-of-year awards, not because they can’t do decent productions, but because it’s near-impossible to stand out. Classic plays are up against bigger companies who have the resources to do a better job, and the reluctance of most societies to try anything original rules out any chance of standing out on that front either. But the People’s Theatre did exactly this with Breaking the Code. The original play was an intimate production with never more than three people on stage at the time – the People’s had a cast of seventeen, but far from a chorus standing there doing nothing, it looked like this was how the play was written all along. And yet everything about the script that makes this play a masterpiece was captured perfectly. The People’s Theatre is lucky to have access to so many top-notch actors, but any company, professional or amateur, can show the originality the People’s did here. I’m expecting an amateur society winning this category to be a one-off – it could happen a lot more if more people realised how much more you can achieve, if only you set sights higher than remembering the lines.
Best Collaborative Work:
This is a recent category, to recognise that many of the best plays don’t follow the traditional model of script-writing then directing. This year, however, even though I’ve naturally seen a lot of collaborative works as a result of my frequent fringing, there haven’t been many plays that I could consider both collaborative and memorable. As such, I’m relaxing the rules a little and giving second place to Wired Theatre with Always, With a Love That’s True. Although this play had a writer/director, Sylvia Vickers, Wired is an ensemble group and the actors who’d played the same characters the year before must have had a big creative influence on the story. Whatever the reason, this second part of a trilogy, with an adulterous psychiatrist losing his own mind when confronted with the ghost of the man who stole his wife, was one of the highlights of Brighton Fringe.
But even if there was more competition in this category, it’s highly unlikely it could beat the winner, the Guild of Misrule with their immersive production of The Great Gatsby. I first came across this play at the Vault Festival in 2017, intended to run across this six weeks. Now, almost two years later, it is still running, and until I saw it for myself, I assumed it was down to the novelty of dressing up for 1930s-tastic night out. But it’s so much more. It’s fully interactive with the audience, funny without causing embarrassment, and is completely faithful to the story as viewed by Nick Carraway – and as well as that, numerous alternate scenes as seen by the other characters. You could see this play a dozen times and see a different sequence of events each time, but whatever you see, the full story still comes together. If you’re in reach of London, see this. If you’re in reach of York, stop press, you can see it this week or next week. When you know how clever an adaptation this is, it’s little wonder it’s run this long, and this could easily keep running for years.
Best individual performance:
This one, I admit, is a lot more arbitrary than the others. A lot of the time, the best performance you can do in a part is to fit in with the rest of the play rather than stand out as an individual – if you are one of those people, I apologise for overlooking you here. Rather, this tends to go to performances that captured my memory one way or the other. As we are considering people rather than plays here, there are three places up for grabs instead of the usual two.
One such memorable performance is in third place, and it’s Daniel Hird in Old Bones, for the final scene in the solo play. I’ll avoid giving away every detail as I’m hoping this play re-appears and I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but it’s the well-used device of ending the play how it began – with a game of dice. Only this time, we now know how desperate he is to lose a game he is destined to always win. This was performed in the upstairs room of the art gallery rather than a theatre, but the fact he held the audience without the help of any extras is all to his credit. The glory here is shared with Jen McGregor for writing such a good ending, but this is an award for the actor, so congratulations Daniel.
The top two spots, however, go to two performances in two outstanding plays that would have been nothing without them. In second place, it’s Richard Jack as Alan Turing in Breaking the Code at the People’s Theatre. For all the innovation of the production, it still would have stood or fallen on the performance of the main character, but Richard Jack delivered what was needed and more. Capturing Turing’s brilliance and principles in the good time, and his naivety and vulnerability in the bad times, he was everything any production could have wished for.
In fact, between first and second place, is was very much a tie. In the end, it came down to which part was newer. Anyone who plays Alan Turing does at least have the advantage that he’s been played many times before, with plenty of chances to see how to get it right. Paige Round, however, was playing Eleanor Lanyon in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which had rarely been done before – and with the entire premise of this adaptation being the inclusion of a new major character, the whole tour would have stood or fallen on this. She delivered it superbly, capturing every bit of this character needed for the adaptation to work: a bored marriage to a misguided husband, a passionate belief in a cause greater than everything, and how an intelligent capable woman can fall in love with a literal monster. Nick Lane did a lot to shape this – actors can of course only be as good as the part written for them – but it would have been such a pity to have got the part wrong. Thanks to Paige Round, this play became everything it could hope to be.
Correction: The original version of this said that this was the first version of Nick Lane’s adaptation. It’s now been pointed out there’s been a couple of earlier versions, although I believe Blackeyed Theatre has done the longest run. I do quick checks for earlier productions, but on this occasions the previous productions managed to evade my Google checks. However, I’m standing by my decision as it’s a tougher job to pull off a pivotal part the less often it’s been performed. Also apologies for getting my Eleanor Lanyons and Eleanor Mortons mixed up. Long story. Blog regulars will know the background to that one.
Best north-east fringe / amateur / low-budget production:
This is another recent category, prompted the rise of Alphabetti Theatre. With the category of best fringe / amateur / low-budget production insanely contested, this was to give more recognition to up and coming local productions. This year, however, it’s been quite a lightly-contested one, caused in part by the absence of Northern Stage from the Edinburgh Fringe this year. To repeat an important clarification: this is for productions from groups based in the north-east. If I see their plays at festival fringes outside the north-east, they are still eligible, but groups from outside the region that tour into the north-east are not.
The runner-up to Cap-a-Pie Theatre with The Important Man. You won’t find this in the reviews just yet because I still have one batch of local fringe productions to round up, but this solo play combined a good performance with an original story – which, for World War One, a topic that has been covered to death in the last four years – is an achievement in its own right. Looking at the little-remembered world of fortune tellers ruthlessly preying on the desperation of relatives worrying about their sons, brothers and husbands at the front, this was a good all-rounder.
First place is quite an easy one to guess: People’s Theatre with Breaking the Code again. I did wonder whether I should allow this play in this category – it was amateur, but it was a lot more resource-intensive than most amateur productions. But I’ve kept it in because I want this play to serve as an example to other amateur companies of what you can do. Yes, many companies won’t be able to add an large-cast ensemble the way People’s did, but there are plenty of other ways to be innovative. If one less amateur director takes down their expectations on the fallacy that only professional groups can produce to professional standard, it will be worth it.
Most promising debut:
This has been a bit of a vague award in previous years because of what actually qualifies as a debut. It doesn’t help that I have a hugely varied list of what I cover. To try to keep this a little less vague this year, I’m defining “debut” as something that is new to the area I am covering. So, for example, a group that is already established locally that is going to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time counts as a debut for Edinburgh and will be eligible, even if I’ve previously covered them locally. However, a group that’s been doing Edinburgh for years won’t be eligible just because I saw them for the first time this year. Other important reminder is that this is most promising debut, not best debut. I loved all of the pieces listed here, but this is more about potential for the future than what I saw this year. (Also, my asessment on whether or not you are a debut mostly based on Google. If you have an extensive prior career that I’ve managed to missed, I advise you to keep quiet about it.)
In second place is Isobel Rogers with Elsa, which scores highly here as it’s something different. This was (I think) her first appearance at the Vault Festival, but whilst it was listed under “theatre”, this could also be considered comedy, or music, or storytelling, or all of them. The best I can describe this as is a collection of musical short stories of various women sitting in a cafe in today’s image- and social media-obsessed world, but this really needs to be seen for yourself as I’ve not seen anything like this. With this many ideas on one hour, it will be interesting to see where this goes next.
The winner of most promising debut is a different kind of debut. Elayce Ismail is already well established in London, but this is the first year many of us in the north-east will have heard of her, where, as an Associate Director of Northern Stage, she has directed War of the Worlds and Under Milk Wood. I’ve listed both these plays for a reason. War of the Worlds was a largely conventional production of a new play, whilst Under Milk Wood was a highly experimental production of an existing play. Both were successful in their own right, but between them it shows just how versatile she is. The only snag is that this post is an 18-month placement that is now coming to a close. We surely have a lot more to look forward to from her – the only question is where.
Most effective staging
Before we proceed, a reminder that this award is for most effect staging, not most expensive staging. Here, I’m not looking for the flashiest production values, but staging (encompassing any or all of sound, lighting, set and so forth) that adds the most to the play. Providing the staging is appropriate to the scale of the production, it can be anything from the smallest productions to the biggest ones. On the small side, Gated Community and its brilliant overhead projector scenes would have been a strong contender here, but only plays I saw for the first time this year are eligible.
So in second place, it’s Super Hamlet 64. I first heard of this last year when it came to Buxton Fringe, but since then it’s grown into a multimedia extravaganza with our hero Hamlet (or is it Mario? or Link?) on an adventure that references just about ever computer game ever made. One thing that is often forgotten is how difficult it is to pull off this kind of production. Creating the back-projections needed for the play is relatively easy – it’s timing the acting into this that’s the huge challenge, right up to the final showdown with evil King Claudius/Luigi, or should I say the final boss battle. The play was a lot of fun too, but it’s the technical accomplishment that gets the second spot here.
First place is at the other end of the production values scale. it’s Pilot Theatre Brighton Rock. Even though this play and Bryony Lavery’s other play, Lovely Bones had different theatre companies and different directors, the staging of the two plays were stylistically similar. But Brighton Rock takes the top spot thanks to the inspired decision of designer Sarah Perks to use Brighton West Pier as the basis for the whole play. Combined with the music written for the play, this added to a strong script to produce one of the most memorable productions of the year.
Best solo play
Another recent category, originally the very best solo plays were covered under best individual performance, but this was split into a new category to give some fair coverage to the masses of solo plays I see. A lot of good solo plays in the running this year, and quite a lot I’d gladly award second place to, but I have to pick one, so I’m going for The Fetch Wilson, performed by Edwin Mullane are produced by The Corps Ensemble. It’s very much a storytelling piece, but I loved the story of a descent into darkness, with Billy Wilson gradually taken away from the straight and narrow by an old school-friend with a passion for high-stakes high-risk poker and more besides. Storytelling sometimes falls foul of losing track of all the characters, but this is managed well here and you never lose track, with humour and tension managed in equal measure right up to the final showdown.
But in the end, Proxy was unbeatable. Caroline Burns-Cooke’s tale of Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy follows on from her previous hit And the Rope Still Tugging Her Feet. The subject matter of the last play, the Kerry Babies scandal in Ireland, might seem different in subject matter, but there is one thing both plays have in common: no matter how repugnant someone’s actions may seem, she always seeks to understand first before condemning. Narrating the story as both mother Dee Dee and daughter Gypsy, we are left with no illusions over the terrible things a mother does to her own daughter all for the sake of medical attention, but not without understanding Dee Dee’s own state of mind: an artificially-idolised view of the medical profession from watching shows like ER, the rare feeling of being treated like she matters when she’s got a sick child, and the terrifying escalation as she resorts to more extreme measures to cover her lies with bigger lies. There is a lot of pressure in the arts right now to spell out morals to the audience, but I think that is a mistake. We are never left in any doubt what is right and wrong in this play, but the audience can work that out for themselves without being spoon-fed. Plenty of plays explain why bad things are bad. Caroline Burns-Cooke, however, is the master of exploring why these bad things happen.
Sporting behaviour award:
This was introduced last year as the “Sportsmanship award”. It’s renamed this year as a more gender-inclusive term (I personally don’t think this is an important issue myself but it offends my sense of pedanticism), but more so it fits with a new award that requires affixing “un-” on to the start of a word.
Anyway, I digress. One major event at the start of the year was the absolute shitstorm of Times Square Panto. I have not been writing about this for months because I don’t kick artists when they’re down, and however badly the management of NS Pantomimes may have behaved, they’re no way they’re recovering from this. I 100% support the right of the cast to refuse to perform if they weren’t being paid, and 100% reject the idea that actors should be expected to work for no pay otherwise they’ll spoil somebody’s Christmas (which is what countless shitty employers rely on every year in order to get away with it). However, that is little consolation for all the families who lost out. So second place for sporting behaviour goes to Whitley Bay Playhouse who gave free tickets to the children of one school for their own pantomime. It’s a pity this civilised kind of resolution could not have extended to more theatres.
First place for sporting behaviour, however, goes to Joe Douglas, the new artistic director of Live Theatre. He’s done a lot to open up Live Theatre to more people when he didn’t have to – all major regional theatres have their “in crowd”, and any incoming artistic director can just carry on with the in crowds they inherit. Joe Douglas, however, began his post with open sessions for anyone to meet him, followed by regular networking sessions, and a lot more openness about how Live Theatre supports artists. Don’t expect a big overnight transformation – the last major reform to inclusively in regional theatre in the north-east was the arrival of Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle, but that revealed how much more work there was to do. These changes, too, can only be further steps in the right direction rather than job done and mission accomplished. But all these steps are important, and it’s much better when these steps are taken wholeheartedly. Here’s to hoping more theatres are inspired to do the same.
Unsporting behaviour award:
The last award was for people who’ve made theatre better for all of us. Now for the other end of the scale. These two things aren’t strictly theatre – one is primarily fine art, one is primarily comedy – but the issues covered there could just as easily apply to theatre.
In second place is Manchester Art Gallery for their stupid stunt where they removed a painting of Hylas and the Nymphs, because apparently looking at nudey ladies in a painting turns men into future Harvey Weinsteins (or whatever stupid claim they were trying to insinuate). It’s not so much what they did at the time, but their reaction to the inevitable public furore afterwards. Manchester Art Gallery claims they only took down a much-loved painting to “start a debate”. I personally don’t buy that argument, because this line is used to excuse all sorts of out-of-touch arrogance in the arts world – but if you insist on using debate as justification for your actions, the least you can do is accept the outcome of the debate you started. Manchester Art Gallery’s response to losing the debate was little better than a tantrum. After their climbdown when they claimed to appreciate all the feedback they got, they churned out article after article back-patting their enlightened selves and dismissing every single disagreement as ill-informed and therefore invalid. They eventually had a public debate nearly four months after the event, and Manchester Art Gallery claims a lot of valid points were raised in this debate. When I have cleared my backlog of reviews, I will check this for myself. But it’s pretty clear from what happened that Manchester Art Gallery welcomes debate provided they are in charge, and they get angry when the debate extends to forums they can’t control. The debates they like are ones where they can steer the consensus away from the one they don’t want. Which, let’s face it, is the worst kind of debate.
But the most disgraceful behaviour this year goes to Kate Copstick, head comedy critic at The Scotsman. Kate Copstick has had a love-hate relationship with performers over the years, and until this year I’d given her the benefit of the doubt over her criticisms. But there was absolutely no excuse for her behaviour at the start of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where she wrote what can only be described as a hit piece for four comedians who refused to give her press tickets for their preview performances, most notably Paul Sinha who went public over this. I’m pretty sure the overwhelming majority of performers and reviewers alike accept at the Edinburgh Fringe that many acts need a preview or two to get used to their Edinburgh venues – even if you don’t have complicated technical effects to bed in, getting used to the Edinburgh audiences can take time. Kate Copstick is of course entitled to her own views, even if they are at odds with everyone else’s. But using your position as lead critic of a major newspaper to tell the readers of your paper four comedians’ shows are shit immediately after they decline your review request is a massive abuse of your position. Worse, whilst the management of Manchester Art Gallery appear to have been brought to heel by the City Council, no-one whom Kate Copstick is answerable to seems to have a problem with her “Do you know who I am?” attitude. I am swiftly losing my patience with them. Last year’s debacle over Paul Whitelaw could at least be downplayed as one rogue reviewer who doesn’t write for them any more. This suggests the rot has set in over their whole fringe team. I hope The Scotsman try to redeem themselves over this, but I’m increasingly moving to the position of urging everyone to refuse review requests from them – it’s not worth it any more.
Unexpected gem of the year:
One of the best things about covering a whole range of theatre is that you can stumble across great stuff you would otherwise never have known about – especially at properly open festivals that encourage you to do this. Something you do not get if you restrict yourself to only plays backed and programmed by the biggest theatres. This award is for plays where I didn’t start off with any expectations (not that I was expecting it to be bad – simply I had no preconceptions either way) and I was pleasantly surprised with what I got.
In second place, the unexpected gem is Crossing the Line. For those unfamiliar with Buxton Fringe, there are three major venues in Buxton (Underground, Rotunda and Green Man Gallery), and the established groups tend to either go for those three or do nothing at all. There are then other performances in minor venues – usually rooms with no sound or lighting other than what the groups themselves bring – which is where you get some more obscure groups, and the odd more established performer who couldn’t get programmed into a bigger venue. Nevertheless, one established piece of Buxton Fringe wisdom is to never rule out the plays in the outlying venues, and Crossing the Line is a prime example why. Joanna Lavelle performs three monologues of three women with a link to the same man caught possessing child pornography: his wife, the investigating officer, and – very far away – the mother of one of the children in the pictures. The stories make no secret of how bad this is, but it deliberately raises more questions than answers. As someone who had a crash course in this kind of subject material on my own project, writer Michael Sheath got it spot on. So if you are still someone who never ventures outside the big venues at Buxton Fringe (or indeed any fringe), this is a good reminder to do so.
The winner is something I had heard good things about b the time I saw it – but when I’d first heard of it, I assumed this was going to be a fun nostalgia-based show but nothing more. After all, you can’t get much more nostalgic than Dusty Bin. But Bin and Gone isn’t really about Dusty Bin, nor is it that much about the famously incomprehensible game show 3-2-1. This is about Ted Rogers, whose life was about so much more than one game show. Before 3-2-1, he was one of the one of the stars of the variety circuit. Sadly, however, this story is just as much about the rise and fall of variety as it is the rise and fall of Ted Rogers himself. The other chapter of the story is what happened afterwards, and that’s a sad tale that few people know. The play is described as one that could only be performed by his son, and that could not be a better description, because the personal connection of Danny Rogers, who grew up in care after his father’s downfall, is what makes the story. This show is still cropping up every now and then, but if it comes near you I can highly recommend catching it, because this is so much more than what it appears to be.
Quite self-explanatory, just for fun an award based not on an overall play but a moment within a play. Like funniest joke awards elsewhere, there’s no substitute for seeing this for yourself, but I’ll do my best to explain.
The winner of funniest moment goes to Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, when Margaret Thatcher decides she’s going to have to read the gay propaganda children’s book everyone’s been talking about. And so our premier braces herself to open the book whilst the gayest anthem in the world, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax plays in the background … Only for the massive anticlimax when the book about a little girl having two daddies turns out to be nothing at all. But there is a serious message behind the joke, about the level of moral panic you can whip up over nothing as long as you can make sure no-one actually sees the thing you want banned. The play is funny from start to finish, but that moment was my highlight.
And the other award the other side of the scale is quite self-explanatory.
This year, it goes to Two Pints, a co-production between Live Theatre and original producers Abbey Theatre. This play, consisting entirely of two men in a pub talking shite, sold out its entire run at Live and the Peacock in Sunderland. I was less enthusiastic about this play than everyone who was raving about it – I personally felt two hours was too long for one single premise – but there was moment I loved. The aforementioned shite spoken by the two men is an escape from the realities of life, and for one of the men that includes the fact his father is dying in hospital. When the inevitable phone call finally comes, it’s the classic man thing of hiding emotions the best he can, and it’s that part that becomes another highlight of the year.
Play that deserved better
Known in previous years as the “Well I liked it” award. It’s often said that when you put on a play, you sometimes get more than you deserve, you sometimes get less than you deserve, but never get what you deserve. This is far a play that I feel got less than it deserved.
This year, it’s Wan in, Wan Oot, a simple but charming play I saw at Brighton. In a family, one couple is having a baby, whilst a grandmother is in her final days. The couple also happens to be two women, but the thing I liked about this – whether by accident or design – is that this isn’t what defines them; 95% of them time, they are just an ordinary couple their ordinary hopes and worries about the new arrival. Unlike previous years, I have no issues with the reviews, which I thought were reasonable, but they definitely deserved better with the audience numbers, if the day I saw it was anything to go by. That – as often is the case with Brighton Fringe – was largely down to rotten luck, with a week-long lunchtime run co-inciding with the hottest week of the year. If it’s any consolation, it was that kind of turnout two years ago that landed me my biggest break to date. In the meantime, this is a shout-out of Mama Koogs, who deserve a bigger audience for what they’re doing, so if you’re in reach of one of their future shows, give them a go.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, I have picked a secret winner for the play that deserved worse, also known as the “How the hell did that get five stars?” award (and it’s not anything I’ve written about on the blog). Bribes accepted.
Most bizarre performance
Also known as the “What the fuck?” award, this is for the play that most stuck out in my mind for going “What the fuck?” (in a good way). It’s a lot-key award this year, because it seems nothing will ever be able to top last year’s winner, Blood and Bone, for the graphic sex scene between a puppet ash tree and a puppet rose bush. (For anyone asking about the details of that, you don’t want to know.) But we still had a good go from John Robertson, who wins this category for the second time with Sexy Sweaty Party Party. There’s not much use in describing this show because he makes up about 90% of this as he goes along. The only thing that is common to all performances the the finale where he smears himself with butter and clings to a pillar whilst people should “Koala! Koala!”, which probably doesn’t make any sense describing it here, but I assure you it made snese when I watched it.
But can he get more bizzare than a puppet plant sex scene? This can be his new challenge.
As we draw approach the finale, this is an award for the thing I think deserves the most recognition this year that’s not covered by any of the other categories.
Second place goes to the first play where I had to put a content warning in the review: Patrick Marber and Ivo Van Hove’s controversial version of Hedda Gabler. I’ve picked this one specifically because of the controversy, because this has kept cropping up with year: moral outcries from people who seemingly can’t tell the difference between depiction and endorsement. For those who don’t know, this version doesn’t beat about the bush with its portrayal of Judge Brack as a sexual predator, and the ending is very uncomfortable viewing. Some people may have problems with the way that was done without any kind of warning. Understandable. But the louder objections come from people who think that Judge Brack’s repugnant treatment of Hedda Gabler somehow is a message that women are to be treated as property – rather than the message I’d have thought would be obvious to anyone watching it, which is that treating women as property is bad. More to that, however, what is portrays most effectively is how different it is when consent is replaced with coercion. definitely not a play I urge everyone to see, for obvious reasons – but a very powerful, if disturbing, play for whose who do.
First place, however, is a lot less controversial: it goes to Max Roberts for directing My Romantic History. Some of you may have noticed I don’t have a category of Best Director – that isn’t because it’s not important, but because it’s near-impossible what in a play was the doing of the director, and what was the doing of the writer, designers or actors. Most of the time, directors will need to look at awards such as Best Production to see how they did. This time, however, there was so much to say about this play that was clearly attributable to the directing. My Romantic History has a cast of three playing numerous characters, and not just one character plus numerous bit parts, but multiple major characters played by the same actors, with no time for costume changes. Max Roberts did an excellent job of this, and we never once lost track of who was playing who this scene, where a lesser director would have faltered. Directing is an unusual job – often you will get the credit for someone else’s work, or someone else will get the credit for your work. But on the rare occasions where we can unambiguously see what was the director’s doing, it should be celebrated.
Disappointment of the year
I may have pissed a lot of people off with last year’s winner, and I suspect Northern Stage still hasn’t fully forgiven me for my verdict of Dr. Frankenstein, especially after I criticised a play – sold on the basis for giving a voice to women – for erasing the voice of the woman who wrote the book in the first place.
This year, I’m not going to name the company that performed the disappointment (don’t try to narrow it down, there’s at least two possibilities), not because I want to avoid pissing off anyone else, but because my issue wasn’t with the performance. Nevertheless, I am naming The Maids as my disappointment because everyone this year seems to be naming Jean Genet’s 1947 play as a masterpiece. I cannot see what all the hype is about. The plot, as far as I can tell, is that there are two maids who work for a woman, and dress up in her clothes, just because. They role-play, just because. They role-play killing her, just because. Then plan to kill her for real, just because. And when one of them chooses not to go through with it, the other one drinks the poisoned drink herself, just because. And plenty of other plot twists that make absolutely no sense for any of the three characters to do. Also, the English translation seems to have someting about frequent use of the word “cunt”, because apparently during the bit where. You slow down. The delivery. To a. Slow. And dramatic. Pace. The. Use. Of. The. Word. CUNT. Shows. It’s. A daring and provocative work of genius.
I suppose it’s possible that the production I saw didn’t bring across the themes needed to understand the play. But I suspect this is a time when a small number of people with established academic credentials liked it, which is fine, but instead of agreeing to have differing opinions, it was decreed that The Maids is a literary masterpiece and if you can’t see that, it’s your fault for not understanding the play deeply enough. Theatre gets off lightly with this mentaility compared to arts like fine art, but I’d rather it stayed that way.
Okay, mini-rant over. Let’s get back to something positive.
Best amateur / low-budget / fringe production:
Here we are. Down to the big two. And to keep this list down to something manageable, I’m being a bit stricter on what I’m admitting here. Out of the five front-runners I have for Best Production, four of them have a claim to be at least one of amateur, low-budget or fringe. So I’m restricting this to shows with small but effective production values – even when larger productions values were achieved with volunteers.
So with The Great Gatsby and Breaking the Code out of the running, this opens up third place to Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, which was arguably the strongest all-rounder of the year. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s original, and yet it’s also surprisingly thoughtful. I’ve been complaining a lot over the last two years about theatre that thinks it’s changing the world but doesn’t. This is a play that does everything right – it has far more appeal than a preachy lecture on section 28 ever could, but still challenges preconceptions of the audience rather than just say what they want to hear. Or Matt Tedford might simple have wanted a fun play and the serious message was just a bonus. Whatever the reason, for anyone wishing to use theatre to influence the world, there’s fewer better examples than this one for how to do it.
For the first two places, both positions were bagged by plays with one powerful message made very well, but I’ve been agonising over which way round to put them. In the end, I’ve used popular appeal as the tie-breaker, not because I think theatre reviewers should based judgements on audience numbers, but more that one thing that is the spirit of the fringe is an unknown capturing the public imagination. So second place it’s Proxy, but it could so easily have been the other way round had I made the decision on another day. Caroline Burns-Cooke brought something to the fringe that is in very short supply. There’s no shortage of plays that spell out why bad things are bad, but much fewer that make any really effort to explore what makes people do these things – and without glossing over what a mother did to her daughter, made a very convincing case for how some care and attention in a hospital could go out of control so much….
Which means that the winner of best amateur / low-budget / fringe production is Vivian’s Music, 1969. Super script, super performance, and like Proxy seeks to understand the issues without downplaying what happened. Artistic merit should never be judged on audience popularity, but, honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this at the Edinburgh Fringe, where something goes from tiny audiences to solid sell-outs so quickly, but there’s few plays that could deserve this more. With a run at 59E59 Theatres in New York reportedly doing well, Vivian’s Music‘s days as the fringe’s best-kept secret can’t be around much longer.
So now we are down to the finale. With fringe theatre now forming a large part of what I see, and the standards of the best fringe theatre getting higher, the top three for best fringe production usually account for a large proportion of the best production top three.
In third place, it’s Proxy, winner of best solo play and second placed in best fringe production, meaning that we’re set for a fringe-dominated top three this year. But it’s not down to a weaker showing from non-fringe productions but an exceptional run the from best Edinburgh fringe plays seen by me this year. Her style of writing throughout her plays has made her a real force to be reckoned with. With a new play coming to the Brighton Fringe, the big question coming up will be … what happens next?
In second place …
Second place is Vivian’s Music, 1969, a success story with acclaimatation from, basically, everybody. Again, this was a very close choice with Proxy, edging ahead on the same tie-breaker. This play will surely be running again after 59E59 – the only question is where. And if it comes back to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it surely would sell out the run again, will it be a repeat of a small such as Sweet Grassmarket 3, or a larger but less intimate space elsewhere. That’s something to find out another day, but this play ends 2018 on a very strong footing.
But if the winner of best fringe production is only second for best production, what is first?
In the end, it’s go to go to The Guild of Misrule for The Great Gatsby. I could have named any of these three as the winner, but the one thing that the Guild of Misrule were unbeatable on was the originality. A pioneering force for both immersive theatre and alternative plotlines, it would have been striking enough one the ideas alone. But bringing these ideas into reality was a far more complex matter – and like all the greatest acts, the most complicated matters look so effortless. What was supposed to be a six-week run in early 2017 is still running, and with regional productions appearing in various parts of the country, this could have a long way to go yet.
So congratulations to the Guild of Misrule, and everyone else who made this list, and thanks everyone are more acts besides for contributing to all the things that made 2018 so memorable. Now 2019 begins – what will be here next year?